While lots of travelers prefer to head to the same tried-and-true summer vacation spots, the United States is home to plenty of under-the-radar vacation alternatives worth considering. Of course, due to COVID-19, now isn't the time to book a vacation, but when it's safe to travel again you might want to buck the typical travel trends for a summer vacation. Instead, consider one of these 8 underrated vacation spots in the United States, from uncrowded Florida beaches to gold-panning in Alaska to surfing on Lake Michigan.
Although its nickname of the “Malibu of the Midwest” might induce a few chuckles, Sheboygan is a pretty fantastic place to get a surf-and-sun experience, without having to leave the Midwest. In fact, Sheboygan is only about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, making it a good spot for a long weekend or even a day trip from Wisconsin’s biggest city.
Sheboygan sits on the western banks of beautiful Lake Michigan, with miles of sandy beaches and plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. Popular water activities include stand-up paddle-boarding, sailing, fishing, and even surfing (seriously). While on land there are plenty of spots to hike, cycle, and golf. Don’t miss a chance to visit the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which features 99,000 square feet of art exhibition space (plus some of the world’s funkiest public restrooms, each designed by an acclaimed artist). Families with kids should also check out the Bookworm Gardens, a two-acre outdoor expanse featuring kid-size installations featuring scenes and characters from over five dozen celebrated children’s books. Popular summer events include the Dairyland Surf Classic, the world’s biggest lake surfing competition, and Brat Days, an annual festival devoted to bratwurst. You guessed it, Sheboygan has a German heritage.
Blue Harbor Resort is set on sprawling grounds overlooking Lake Michigan. Amenities include a sandy beach, festive water park, mini-golf course, and an outdoor pool, along with several restaurants and snack bars on-site. Cottage-style suites have sitting areas, and balconies or patios with river views in some, and bunk beds in children’s themed rooms. Villas and upgraded suites have fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, and kitchens. This place is a family favorite.
While most Oregon visitors head straight to the notoriously hip city of Portland, the second-largest city in the Beaver State — Eugene — is worth considering as an underrated summer vacation. The University of Oregon (the birthplace of Nike footwear) is located here, which means that things get a little less crowded during the summer months as students pack up and head home for the summer. It’s a vibrant and fun place to be year-round, with plenty of attractions as well as special summer events. It’s a great place for outdoorsy types, with a high concentration of parks within city limits that are ideal for hiking, and it’s only a short drive to the coastal city of Florence, famous for its sand dunes. Family-friendly highlights include the Cascades Raptor Center, home to over 30 species of birds, and the Science Factory, a hands-on science and technology museum, complete with its own planetarium. For grown-ups, the Eugene area is home to lots of wineries (Sweet Cheeks Winery and King Estate Winery are particularly popular) along with plenty of breweries, including the popular Ninkasi Brewing Company and WildCraft Cider Works. Special summer events include the Oregon Bach Festival and the Oregon Country Fair, a huge hippie fest full of live music and arts and crafts, which has been going strong since 1969.
Inn at the 5th is a wonderful boutique hotel located right in downtown Eugene, overlooking the popular 5th Street Public Market. Rooms are modern and sleek with stylish decor and amenities like iPod docks and coffeemakers with Starbucks coffee. For a real vacation upgrade, choose a suite — some have fireplaces, private balconies, and whirlpool tubs.
While most people vacationing in Florida head straight to hotspots such as Miami or the Florida Keys, the Sunshine State offers plenty of other under-the-radar summer vacation destinations worth considering. Jacksonville, the most populous city in the state, is a great option. If you’d rather spend your vacation outside, Jacksonville has you covered, with miles of beaches as well as the largest urban park system in the United States, with 400-odd parks spread over 80,000 acres. Popular attractions include the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, which encompasses historic sites such as the Kingsley Plantation and Fort Caroline, as well as Jacksonville Beach, which attracts swimmers, sunbathers, and fishing enthusiasts alike– you can even surf here when the swells are strong. There are also plenty of cultural attractions, outdoor attractions, and festivals to keep you busy during your summer getaway. Cultural attractions include the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, with its sprawling gardens and large collection of porcelain and art from around the world. The University of North Florida’s Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is another worthwhile spot, and if you’re a fan of the fine arts, consider timing your visit to coincide with the first Wednesday of the month, when an Art Walk showcasing local makers, artists, and performers takes over Hemming Park. If you want to learn more about the area, don’t miss the Museum of Science & History, which offers plenty of science-focused and natural history exhibits geared toward kids and adults alike.
Located across the boardwalk from the beach, the Best Western Oceanfront is a budget property offering excellent value in Jacksonville Beach. After a full renovation in 2017, rooms are contemporary and comfortable, with well-reviewed beds and solid amenities such as free high-speed Wi-Fi, mini-fridges, microwaves, and coffeemakers. Many units have balconies offering direct ocean views. Bonus: there’s a free, varied breakfast with hot and cold options for fueling up before a beach day.
Dubbed the “Ski Capital of the East,” the Vermont town of Stowe has long been popular with winter vacationers, and is best known for Stowe Mountain Resort. However, there’s plenty to do here in the summertime, when snow melts to reveal beautiful hiking and mountain biking trails. Other popular activities include fishing (trout season runs from April through October), golfing at the Stowe Country Club or the Stowe Mountain Club, and swimming and kayaking on the West Branch River. Stowe Mountain Resort even offers summertime ziplining. And although outdoor activities are the big draw, Stowe offers plenty of additional activities, with multiple spas in the area, hot air balloon rides, and even a winery, Boyden Valley Winery and Spirits, which offers free tours every morning. And if you’re longing for winter, the Old Town Hall houses the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum, which features a smattering of ski-related exhibits. Summer vacationers may want to line their trips up to coincide with one of the Music in the Meadow performances, held throughout the summer in the grassy lawns of the Trapp Family Lodge.
Topnotch Resort has impeccable city-meets-country minimalist design and a huge selection of on-site activities and features. Rooms are stylish and range from classic Deluxe Rooms with woodsy accents to multi-room vacation homes. The hotel’s year-round tennis program features pro-certified trainers and there are also several indoor and outdoor pools on site as well as a spa. Let’s not forget two outstanding restaurants — Flannel and The Roost — both of which have locally sourced menus popular with tourists and locals.
Mendocino County, California
Most people equate California summer vacations with sunny Southern California, but it’s in the more northerly parts of the state where you get the most gorgeous coastlines. Big Sur is easily the state’s most celebrated stretch of seaside when it comes to sheer natural beauty, it’s also world-famous, with limited—and generally expensive—lodging options. A more affordable and still gorgeous underrated alternative is the town of Mendocino and its namesake surrounding county, situated around 300 miles north up the Pacific Coast Highway (101). The beaches are predominantly part of larger state parks and, as such, are kept completely natural, without any development to disrupt it the county’s 90-odd miles of sand and rock formations. Some of the best sea views can be found by taking a hike along the Noyo Headlands Fort Bragg Coastal Trail, which traverses sea cliffs and beaches. Also worth checking out is the three-mile-long Shady Dell Trail, which passes through candelabra tree forest. If you want to see some of the region’s famous mammoth redwood trees, head inland to the Montgomery Woods State Reserve. Alternatively, head up to Fort Bragg or Willits and hop aboard the Skunk Train, a historic rail cruiser dating to 1885 that will take you deep into forest. Other noteworthy attractions include the City of 10,000 Buddhas, one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in the country, as well as the Solar Living Institute and its Memorial Car Grove, featuring a collection of rusted vintage cars with huge trees growing out of them.
The intimate Sea Rock Inn is an upscale bed-and-breakfast with resort touches. It offers suites and cottages with panoramic ocean views and wood-burning fireplaces. Binoculars are provided for whale-watching from private decks or the large lawn, which slopes gently toward the edge of the rocky Pacific cliffs. The inn isn’t fancy, but it is charming with knotty pine furniture, gorgeous flowerbeds, and whimsical paintings and sculptures. Cabin-like guest rooms have plush beds from which guests can see the ocean.
Beaufort, South Carolina
Situated on South Carolina‘s Port Royal Island, Beaufort is a charming little city known for its beautifully preserved antebellum houses and easy access to a number of great area beaches. Dating back to 1711, it’s the second-oldest city in the state after Charleston and this old-fashioned city has served as the background for films such as “The Big Chill” and “Forest Gump.” If you’re interested in learning about local history, a good place to start is the Beaufort History Museum, which is full of artifacts from centuries past — there’s even a Penny-Farthing bicycle on display. Once you’ve visited the museum, you can put some of what you learned into context with a stroll through the Beaufort Historic District. The area is full of examples of Queen Anne and Victorian architecture, spanning multiple neighborhoods, including downtown’s main thoroughfare, Bay Street and up to the swanky Old Point and Bluff neighborhoods. Landmark structures include Tabby Mase, one of only a few houses still standing with exteriors made from tabby, a material made by mixing oyster shells and limestone. Also of historical interest is the Robert Smalls House, named for a man who was born into slavery in the house, and served in the Civil War, ultimately becoming a South Carolina State Representative during the Reconstruction era. Other noteworthy attractions include the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory, the only kazoo factory in the country, while nearby Hunting Island State Park — notable for the Hunting Island Lighthouse — is ideal for hiking, birding, and sunbathing.
City Loft Hotel is a pet-friendly hotel near downtown Beaufort. It’s within walking distance of historical sites, restaurants, and shops. The modern rooms are equipped with iPod docks, Sealy Plush beds, mini-fridges with free bottled water, and comfy bathrobes. Gorgeous bathrooms feature glassed-in rainfall showers and large soaking tubs. City Java & News serves American dishes for breakfast and lunch. There’s also a fitness center with a great selection of equipment along with steam showers and personal training.
If you’re not a fan of sweltering summers and sand in your socks, Alaska makes perfect sense for an alternative summer vacation. Fairbanks in particularly is a good bet. Many people opt to come here in the freezing height of winter, specifically for Northern Lights tourism, and it’s a fantastic place to chill out in the summer, too. Summer events worth traveling for include the annual Solstice events, which include the Midnight Sun Festival, a huge street fair with live music, performances, vendors, and — unsurprisingly — gold panning. There’s also a special summer solstice baseball game, The Midnight Sun Game, which celebrates the longest day of the year. Fairbanks hosts the annual Golden Days, its founder’s day celebration, complete with a range of family activities, including a rubber ducky race. Popular Fairbanks attractions include the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, which showcases not only vintage cars, but also over a century’s worth of accompanying men’s and women’s attire. Definitely don’t miss the University of Alaska Museum of the North, which focuses on the local people and nature of the region. Fairbanks also makes for a great base from which to explore the local area. Nearby points of interest include Chena Hot Springs, home to a natural thermal hot springs and a year-round ice museum full of whimsical sculptures. If you want a feel for old-timey Alaska, head up to Gold Dredge 8 for a ride on a narrow gauge train up to the old gold panning site. Uou can even do a bit of panning yourself while you’re there. Just remember to pack a sleep mask for Fairbanks. At the peak of the summer months, the sun only sets for around three hours at night.
The Hampton Inn & Suites Fairbanks has everything that makes the chain a popular choice for budget travelers, and the added value of free 24/7 shuttles to the airport and train depot. A large shopping plaza with restaurants and a Walmart are a short drive away. Highlights include a free hot breakfast, nice fitness center and indoor pool/whirlpool, guest laundry facilities, and free Wi-Fi. Its 101 rooms are clean, quiet, and spacious.
Deep in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is a historic town with strong German roots exemplified in its local architecture and restaurants. Much of the activity is centered around the city’s Main Street, peppered by art galleries, locally owned shops, and eateries. In fact, franchises and chain shops aren’t even allowed here. Other area highlights include the Lyndon B Johnson State Park and Historic Site, which features a living history farmstead that shows visitors what life was like back in pioneer days. Also worth a visit is the National Museum of the Pacific War, which features displays and exhibits focused on WWII history in the Pacific Region. And while most people aren’t quick to associate Texas with wine, there are some 50 wineries and vineyards in the surrounding area. Major summer events include the Fredericksburg Crawfish Festival, held in late May and the monthly Fredericksburg Trade Days, which feature hundreds of vendors selling everything from antiques to handmade clothing plus a beer garden and live musical performances.
A budget-friendly property, the Inn on Barons Creek includes a number of convenient amenities, including a relaxing spa, guest laundry facilities, and a heated outdoor saltwater pool. Spacious traditional suites and lovely bed-and-breakfast style rooms overlook the nearby creek. The hotel includes free Wi-Fi, free parking, and free breakfast, and it’s located within walking distance to downtown Fredericksburg.
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